THE FOSSIL TRAIL by Ian Tattersall


How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution


 A refreshing appraisal of the state of the science of human origins. Tattersall heads the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His review takes off from Darwin and the dawn of modern geology, tracks the major sites and discoverers, and ends with current controversies and his personal reading of the record. The lesson that comes through loud and often is how much personal bias and prevailing paradigms have colored interpretation. Examples: The Victorian notion that evolution is ``directed,'' moving onward and upward, and the more recent idea that humans represent the end product of a single lineage of ancestors and a gradually changing species. Then there were the hoaxes to contend with, and controversies about whether the races evolved independently or derived from a common root. Into this morass came the burst of recent fossil discoveries, the mapping of diversity via DNA, and new dating methods. The conclusion that Tattersall reaches is that we ought to view modern humans as a surviving species with varying degrees of biological closeness with other Homo species. These in turn descended from several different genera, starting about four million years ago with the bipedal Australopithecus afarensis in Africa. As he spins his tale he makes the point that physical changes do not match advances in technological skills, but that in due course there were obvious changes in behavior that mark abstract thought and language. His epilogue carries the grim message that we cannot expect evolution to come riding in to rescue the future: ``We shall have to learn to live with ourselves as we are. Fast.'' Wise words from a highly qualified observer of humanity past and present.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-506101-2
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1994


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